I mean nothing evil whatsoever in saying I fear Yury Kazakov (1927-1982) is on the verge of being forgotten. Maybe I’m actually saying something almost good. Maybe I’m saying that Kazakov, who was once one of the most respected Soviet writers (reviled, naturally, by “official critics”), and who remains a standard of excellence for those in the know today, is one of those inconstant beacons that remind us excellence is its own reward, everybody else be damned. Maybe I’m saying that Kazakov, in some odd way, grows in stature all the more as subsequent harried generations lose themselves in the vanity of their affairs.
I was introduced to Kazakov’s work while studying Russian and Russian literature at the University of California at Irvine. He was presented to us with great trepidation, I would say, with great respect, with words of sincere admiration for a writer who based everything he did on quiet subtlety. I remember Bulat Okudzhava talking about him with great respect when he lectured at Irvine in the early 1980s. I also remember Vasily Aksyonov applying the same respect to his work when he conducted seminars I attended during my time at George Washington University a year or two later. Those opinions had a powerful effect on me and they have lasted. Even though I haven’t read a single thing of Kazakov’s since the early 1980s. And, indeed, I never hear anyone talk about him today. Let’s say I just move in the wrong circles. I’m in the wrong place at the wrong time. It’s certainly possible. Life is too big for any one of us to embrace fully. We do it badly, incompletely, lacking the proper understanding and perspective. What we’re left with is our own personal perspective, not unimportant by any means, but significantly flawed.
This, perhaps, is why I always have such a warm feeling when I pass by building No. 30 on the Arbat where a plaque was erected in Kazakov’s memory. The future writer moved into one of the communal apartments here with his mother when he was three years old, and he spent the next 34 years here. There’s a nice anonymous text called “The Hidden Light of the Word” in the internet that sheds light in snippets on Kazakov’s life here. It talks about the young boy going to music school holding his sheet music in a folder while standing outside the apartments of Svyatoslav Richter and Nina Dorliak, spellbound by the sounds of them playing the piano (Richter) or singing (Dorliak). During WW2 a bomb fell on the roof of this building and, our anonymous author tells us, Kazakov was one of those who ran up to help put out the fire. He would have been 15ish.
“Yury Pavlovich Kazakov’s literary fate,” this text continues, “seems enigmatic, even improbable. How did it happen that this urban boy, a student, a musician and a four-eyes, suddenly turned into the writer who gave rise to the famous ‘country prose’? Kazakov wrote about the city, too, but it was his stories “At the Way Station” (1954), “Ugly” and “The Traveler” (1956) that put out the new branch of Russian literature in the 20th century. The term ‘country prose’ did not exist yet at the time, but Party critics were already coming down on it hard. These critics saw in the honest description of the Russian countryside – its beauties and its deprivations – a threat to ‘Socialist achievements.'”
So it was while Kazakov lived in this building that his literary reputation was established. His first book was published in 1959 in Arkhangelsk. In April 1959 Kazakov, in a letter to a friend, quoted one of the phrases from the first review: “In our opinion the appearance of Yu. Kazakov’s book, which crudely distorts our reality and the image of our contemporaries, the builders of Communism, is a mistake of the Arkhangelsk publishers…” Jesus. It sounds like the crap hack critics are writing about Russian playwrights in 2014!
Valery Bondarenko, in a piece written in May of this year, had this to say about Kazakov: “I think the main thing for Kazakov and the people of his generation was a striving for extremes, and, beyond that, a certain enchantment with the possibility, the nearness, of death. ‘Having missed the war,’ it was as though in peace time they wallowed in childish, silly complexes pushed to absurd lengths: ‘A man must know the sweat and salt of labor, he must cut, or at least plant, a tree or catch a fish in order to show people the fruits of his labor – much more real and indispensable than my stories!’ (‘Northern Diary, 1960).”
In my ignorance, having read just a few of Kazakov’s stories (30 years ago!) but remembering well a few well-chosen words of praise, every time I pass by this building on the Arbat I do it with an especial feeling of deference and appreciation.